Heidi C. M. Scott, Fuel: An Ecocritical History 

Heidi C. M. Scott, Fuel: An Ecocritical History (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018) 328 pp. £99.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-1350053984

With climate change, fracking, and appeals to ‘keep it in the ground’, energy issues are rarely out of the news. Protests from Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil are now worldwide. This book seeks to give a cultural, literary, and eco-critical history of fuel related to today. Heidi Scott’s book has something to offer all interested in fuel and energy, whether a director of Exxonmobil, an activist for Extinction Rebellion, or a student. It is only in this century that environmental issues have been studied, academically or with activism in mind, beyond the science. Thus, today we have sociological, critical, and literary studies with a burgeoning literature. This work is just one part of the Bloomsbury Environmental Culture Series.

Scott gives a historical framework for the varieties of fuel: i. biomass – muscle power (grass), wood, and charcoal, ii. fossil fuels – coal and oil with a note on gas, iii. primary energy, wind, water, solar and nuclear. Vaclav Smil’s excellent Energy and Civilisation: A History gives a historical under-pinning to the book of fuel as fundamental to human life and not just as pollutant. The well-documented references to literary work bring out aspects of changing usage and attitudes to energy. The work is more descriptive than critical, and more a historical study of fuel in literature.

The thrust of the book is to present fuel in a wide range of literature. Its focus is on writers in English from the last 250 years, though classical writers are mentioned. Scott uses literary allusions to various fuels as unwitting evidence to show how fuel was perceived at that time.

The gem of Scott’s readings focuses on Jane Austen. As Austen’s novels are ‘domestic’ rather than ‘industrial’ they concentrate on the home, with a good fire being a mark of wealth and the lack thereof being of hardship. It is hard for those who have always known central heating and double glazing to feel this. It is even the case that slums might have been better heated than workers’ cottages at this time.

The chapter on King Coal shows how the Industrial Revolution influenced literature. Often authors were, and are, ambivalent to the idea of ‘progress’. This was the richest seam to mine as not only were there so many nineteenth-century novels to draw on, but coal transformed society in unimaginable ways, producing the hardships of Coketown (aka Preston), revolutionised transport on land and sea, and raised the standard of living – at the price of smog.

None of the examples are favourable to coal; Hard Times was just that, with its grim portrait of industry at its most polluting. In contrast, coal hardly figures in Hardy, with his portraits of a coal-free Wessex, though coal-fired farming machinery was appearing. Llewellyn’s How Green is my Valley is more prescient on the downside of coal and the contrast with a pastoral idyll. It is prophetic, with its moving slagheap almost a portent of the 1966 Aberfan disaster which is often seen as the starting point of environmental geology. Leaving deep mining behind we are presented with fictional accounts of mountain top removal in the Appalachians, the most damaging form of coal mining.

Moving onto oil – Black Gold – the author crosses the pond. The centrepiece is a contrast of Upton Sinclair’s Oil and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. On one hand we see the worst of oil exploitation, and on the other, extravagant fun driving a Cadillac across America. Both tempt one to become an ecoterrorist and pick up Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, which throws a spanner into the worship of oil. These three novels show the ambivalence, value, and squalor of oil-dependency. But solutions cannot be found in the literature and the account of Supertramp; Chris McCandless’s short and tragic life highlights the angst and problems of a fuel-driven world. Surprisingly there is little on Natural Gas, which has come into prominence as a major fuel since the development of fracking in the 1990s.

Unsurprisingly biomass and fossil fuel energy take up most of the volume, with one chapter on renewables, including nuclear energy. Energy from wind and water goes back millennia and thus to Homer and, more recently, Shakespeare. The section on nuclear is typically dark, reflecting the (perhaps unjustified?) suspicion of nuclear energy.

I read the book with several interchangeable spectacles; one who is moderately read in literature, a former mining geologist, a historian of science, and as someone who inevitably uses a lot of fuel but with a concern for the environment. The great strength of the book is the way it draws out energy issues from various novels making the reader think more than just about the human plots. These were usually implicit in the writing and the author concerned rarely had any interest in ‘fuel’ as such, but was describing the material context, whether stoking a wood-fire in a Jane Austen novel or racing across America in a Cadillac. This is, of course, finding ‘unwitting’ testimony and encourages valuable reflection. Interesting aspects of these novels are highlighted where most readings would simply gloss over them. The scope is very ambitious with a vast variety of different times and fuels. This probably made detailed analysis difficult, and thus it comes over as more of a narrative account. 

A major strength of this work is that it is not just for scholars, but for anyone interested in energy issues and wishing for a different slant. It has great value for students of literature and historians of various kinds, as well as for those interested or working on energy issues.

Throughout the book is a sense of nervous ambivalence to most kinds of fuel as the dark side of fuel often raises it head, yet fuel is also essential for human life. This is inevitable as, despite mantras, there is no clean energy and every fuel has a price for both planet and people. One weakness is the insufficient familiarity with technical aspects of fuel. That is inevitable as few outside the energy and extractive industries are familiar with the technicalities, though I cannot recommend getting Carbon monoxide poisoning in a mine! By giving a literary and historical slant, many issues are brought to the fore.

The ambivalence of fuel may be seen in the death of one of the main characters in Hardy’s The Woodlanders (not mentioned in this study), Giles Winterbourne, who dies of cold and damp in a semi-derelict unheated cottage. Being pre-occupied he failed to use his wood to keep warm. As we think of that we need to note it was not so many miles from Wych Farm, which is now the largest onshore oilfield in Western Europe. Cold and damp has long been a major killer; fuel for heat comes at a price.

Fuel is something we don’t seem to be able to live with, nor to live without it. This book will confirm both. Be sure, new writing will appear on the recent fuel crisis, Net Zero, the fight over nuclear energy, and new fossil fuels.

Michael Roberts, Garstang, nr Coketown.

[1] https://bigthink.com/strange-maps/fake-map-fukushima-disaster-radiation/?fbclid=IwAR1Zj1dcmSZOOoLrtjDVV895VWoMrm2JjyPTfiiIkvA7sy-7R2_N-NxScYk